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History Lives Here Text

The DouglasBasket Factory
By Retha Haan

 

(In the early 1960s Douglas residentand teacher, Retha Haan, interviewed Mrs. Elmer E. Weed, Mrs. J. EverettDurham, William Devine, Fred Schultz and Mrs. Wallace Williams and wrote thissynopsis of a Douglas factory.)

 

In Douglas,Michigan, back in the 1870s when the lumbering, tanning and boatbuildingindustries which had made it a busy and thriving little village, were beginningto wane and the "Peach Era" was beginning to boom in southwesternMichigan, Captain Robert Reed, who had a large fruit farm on the shore of LakeMichigan at Douglas, started and operated a small basket factory at the foot ofTannery Hill on the Kalamazoo River. The operation was later moved to a newlocation, on a bend of the river, on the north side of Douglas. In 1 872 it wassold to William and Joshua Weed who enlarged it and it was called the"William Weed and Company Basket Factory."

 

The firstfruit package which the Weeds manufactured from a patent which they inventedwas known as the Wobble Crate, so called because of the crossed pieces, orwobble in the bottom of the square crate; which kept the four round, peck peachbaskets in position in the crate. The baskets were made from veneer splints,nailed to a solid bottom and were kept in shape and made firm by hoops nailedaround the top, center and bottom of the basket. Later, Joe Devine and EverettDurham invented a machine for sewing the hoops to the basket, in one operationwith wire. This was a big money saver as it had cost 50 cents per hundred tonail hoops; but they could be sewed for 17 cents per hundred.

 

Berry boxesand crates were also made. The boxes were made from two pieces of scoredveneer. The scoring enabled the veneer to bend, shaping the box. At first theywere nailed together, but later, probably after 1900, they also were sewed withwire. The first sewing machines were foot-operated, but later ones werepower-operated.

The firstClimax baskets, which we know as grape baskets, were made by the Dickeyfactory in Douglas, which early went out of business and their machinery wasmoved to Cadillac. Later Climax baskets, in 5th and 6th bushel sizes were alsomanufactured in the Weed Basket Factory.

Oneinformant asserts that Roger Reed of Douglas made the patent for the bushelbasket. Another asserts that he and Everett Durham invented the form far makingthe Jumbo basket, although they never received any financial benefit from theirinvention. Be that as it may, the factory did manufacture all of these types ofbaskets and berry crates and boxes, becoming one of the largest fruit packagemanufacturing plants in Michigan. During later years the local firm wasconnected with a factory in Lawton, supplying the baskets for the large Lawtonand Paw Paw grape vineyards.

When WilliamWeed's son, Elmer, finished college, William turned his interest in the factoryover to him and it was renamed "E. E. Weed and Company." About 1896,Frank Kirby, who was bookkeeper for the factory and also held an interest,died, and D. Milton Gerber took over his interest. James Wark also came in anda stock company was formed. William Tisdale and Everett Durham held workinginterests. When the stock company was formed the name of the factory waschanged for the last time to "The Douglas Basket Factory." After 18years in the factory, Elmer Weed withdrew and Mrs. Kirby took over some of hisinterest; although he continued to hold stock in the company until the factoryburned.

 

Mr. Workmanaged the plant for some years; then he became ill and William Devine tookover Mr. Work's work as manager and was given $2,000 in stock. When the factorywas owned by the Weeds, it never had a very reliable financial status. Itrequired quite a lot of capital to operate and there was not much to be had.The work, because of its nature, was necessarily seasonal. A man earned about$1.50 per day for day labor. Piece workers could sometimes earn $3 or more perday. A single man received $5 of his wages each week in cash; a married manreceived $b. The workers were then given an order on the grocery store for therest of their wages, which was paid up when the company collected for basketsat the end of the season. After Gerber and Wark took over, the factory was on asound financial basis and workers received the entire amount of their wages bycheck each week.

 

In the earlydays of the factory, when the baskets and crates had to be nailed by hand,nailing was considered a trade and 10 or 15 nailers were imported for thesummer. They were rather rough individuals, heavy drinkers, and they followedthe crop from place to place, very much the same as tramp coopers. They beganabout May 1 and worked until about October 1. About 25 or 30 women also workedat nailing.

 

The factorycontinued to expand. About the time that Gerber and Wark became interested inthe factory, they realized that the supply of local timber was nearlyexhausted, so they bought 2,500 acres of timber along Swan Creek, near Allegan,and 2,500 acres along the Kalamazoo River. The logs were cut and piled on the banksof the Kalamazoo River in winter and floated and rafted to Douglas in springand summer as needed. A raft of logs was on its way down the river when thefactory burned.

 

The work ofcutting, trimming and scaling the lags, cutting the limbs into cordwood andpiling same, kept a crew of 25 to 30 farmers and Indians busy in winter. Some ofthem then worked in the factory in the summer. The men received $2 per1,000 feet for cutting logs and $1 per cord for 18-inch hardwood. The Indiansand farmers did a good job. they felled and cut the logs to good advantage andcut and piled the wood honestly and straight.

 

Beech andmaple were used mostly for staves, elm for hoops, basswood and whitewood forberry boxes and soft maple was best for slats and covers for berry crates. Thelogs were sorted as to use before floating down the river. They were steamedafter reaching the factory and then the veneer was cut round and round untilall that was left of a log was a pole about four inches in diameter. The veneerwas also scored, by the veneering machine, so it would bend and then cut intothe desired size sheets.

 

During the"Peach Era" the factory was making more than a million Climax basketsa year, with bushels and crates in proportion. Lake boats made daily trips toChicago carrying peaches from Douglas, Pier Cove and South Haven. Farmers withloads of peaches were often lined up at the piers for blocks, waiting to unloadonto the boats. These same farmers took home loads of empty baskets fromDouglas.

 

The factory gaveemployment to 100 to 300 people depending on the fruit crop. Production wasdivided into department. Mr. Everett Durham was in charge of basketmanufacturing and Harry Forrester had a contract for making berry crates andboxes on commission. This last named department was now carried on in abuilding across the road from the main factory.

 

However, itbecame increasingly expensive to operate the plant as it became larger. Afiler, engineer and fireman were employed the year round. In order to hold help,baskets had to continue being made even though the fruit crop was scarce.Several large warehouses far storing the surplus were built which were filledto capacity when the factory burned on April b,1927. Thus ended the career ofone of the many small enterprises which help to make great our villages, citiesand nation.

Douglas BasketFactory Workers ca 1907

 

This is afascinating collective portrait. A study of the setting, the faces, the clothesand the obvious pride of these workers presents a marvelous century ago peekinto local history and the basket factory past. The photo has long been in ourcollection but without names. Then the Society got lucky when Candy Vanossdiscovered - in her many family photos - a copy with names scrawled on the margins[the names were keyed by numbers to the individuals]. Thumbtack rings on thatphotograph were a clue that it may have been displayed on some public wall. Thenames and numbers were written mostly in white ink by more than a singlewriter. The inks have faded badly and part of the pasteboard backing had brokenoff, but with computer enhancement and careful study in a glancing light, manyof the names are discernable. We believe the photo was taken between 1905 and1910. Using the names and likely ages, we did a search of 1900 and 1910 censuspages at Ancestry.com. The final selection of individuals named here requiredsome educated guesses by myself and Kit Lane, so be aware that the table datais our best effort - there are no guarantees that it is 100% correct!! Thephoto raises questions and you family history buffs can help with answers. Thenames - completeness and confirmation are lacking.- please help us to confirmwhat is correct and identify what is missing. This is obviously not the fullcrew of workers- what was the significance of this group? Are there othersimilar large group photos taken about the same time? We know that there werenative American and women employees but none appear here. What stories can youpass on about the workers and the basket factory? We plan to run anotherchapter of this story in a couple months - please give us a hand with yourcontributions by contacting Jack Sheridan or Kit Lane.

 

By JackSheridan